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Power outages threaten medical oxygen supply in South Africa

Mar 13, 2023Mar 13, 2023

Hospitals and clinics across the Eastern Cape region in South Africa have been hit by a potential medical oxygen crisis after a power supply failure shut down the Port Elizabeth air separation unit (ASU), which supplies essential gases to the regional healthcare industry.

ASU owner and operator Afrox has engaged in ‘urgent talks’ with the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM), the organisation responsible for power supplies to the Coega Development Zone (CDZ) where the ASU is located.

Power supply issues have plagued the plant since the explosion of the Recruitment substation on 11th March, leading the NMBM to provide an alternative power supply to Afrox and other affected CDZ tenants.

Just two weeks later a faulty joint on the supply cable caused a power interruption and – despite the completion of repairs on 28th May – Afrox could not successfully start the plant due to an undervoltage volt.

The problem persisted following a second round of repairs at the same joint on 31st May.

"When Afrox learned of the low voltage issue in the cable last week, it afforded the Municipality the opportunity to remedy the issue but with no success," said an Afrox spokesperson.

"During this time, we have supplied our PE customers out of the local storage tanks or sourced product from other suppliers in the region."

According to the company, these alternative suppliers have stated that they can no longer supply Afrox.

"This will have ongoing ramifications for critical healthcare customers, onsite equipment safety and safe handling and storage operations."

"We have been forced to declare strict force majeure measures even if customers can source product themselves," the statement concluded.

Afrox has confirmed it has no indication how long repair work will take or even when it will start.

South Africa's energy crisis

Since 2007 South Africa has been experiencing an ongoing period of widespread national blackouts of electricity supply.

Known as load shedding, these power outages are a controlled way of rotating available electricity between the customers of national power utility Eskom.

One of its main causes is the country's heavily reliance on ageing infrastructure such as coal-fired power plants.

Between 1961 and 1991 Eskom completed the construction of 14 new power stations, keeping up with economic expansion within the country at the time.

As demand for power continued to increase, a report released in 1998 suggested that Eskom be restructured into separate electricity generation and power transmission businesses to improve power supply and reliability.

Despite these warnings, Eskom has completed the construction of only one power station during the past 20 years.

The report also predicted that unless Eskom increased its capacity, it would run out of electrical power reserves by 2007.

Due to the Mbeki government considering the privatisation of Eskom, no action was taken and the utility company was left unable to add additional generating capacity until 2004 when permission was granted by the government.

In addition to government neglect, multiple factors have contributed to South Africa's ongoing energy crisis, including poor management, corruption and sabotage.

According to Afrox, with the country facing worsening load shedding, the effect on South African business, industry and especially healthcare services, will be detrimental to South African citizens.

Despite requesting support from government departments such as the President's Office, various ministers, premiers and directorates of healthcare, Afrox revealed it has evoked ‘no response’.

Impact on healthcare

During the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa recorded more cases than any other country in Africa – more than four million.

The increased need for medical care brought on by the pandemic combined with load shedding pushed healthcare facilities to their limits.

According to Think Global Health, a rural district hospital in the Eastern Cape experienced 127 hours per month without power between September 2021 and February 2022, including a 48 hour stretch without electricity.

The effect of load shedding has had a significant impact on patients who rely on private oxygen concentrators at home.

To keep oxygen flowing during a power outage, these concentrators need to be connected to a generator or inverter.

In September 2022, some oxygen-dependent patients in the country experienced more than nine hour periods every 24 hours without electricity during load shedding.

Although patients often have an oxygen bottle back-up, sometimes it is not enough to last the full outage period.

Commenting on the lack of response on the matter from government departments, Afrox stated, "If operations on manufacturing sites cannot be conducted in a safe and reliable manner in line with regulations, then the gases industry will not be in a position to supply oxygen to state and private medical facilities, placing patient care and lives at risk, and gases to many other markets."

gasworld is currently awaiting additional reaction from oxygen generation companies based in South Africa.

Impact on healthcare gas